Profile in courage: Athlete overcomes leg amputation, inspires school
Published 8:13 pm Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Walking across the stage to receive a high school diploma is special for every graduate. That short walk represents years of study and sacrifice, but each step will be especially sweet Friday for one Demopolis High School senior.
A few months ago, Tony Nicholson was told he might not ever walk again.
A star athlete at DHS, Nicholson lost his left leg from the knee down after being shot at a party in Hale County last June. In the wrong place at the wrong time, he couldn’t escape when a fight broke out and bullets started flying.
“People were telling me, ‘Don’t get into any trouble tonight.’ I wasn’t listening,” Nicholson said. “I was feeling good and wanted to party. Everything just broke out.”
In a flash, big dreams for the big guy’s senior season, which included the prospect of a football scholarship, were shattered.
‘LET’S TRY AND SAVE IT’
Nicholson came to head coach Tom Causey’s football team as an eighth-grader.
Though not a starter, he played on the 2009 championship team his freshman year and was on the defensive line his sophomore and juniors years.
Last summer, Causey moved the 320-pounder to the offensive line.
The move proved to be a great fit for Nicholson, who shined through spring practice. In fact, the day before his accident marked the first time Nicholson had ever completed sprints, called half gassers, in the time Causey wants for his linemen.
“When he made every time, I said maybe he’s here,” Causey said. “That was Thursday morning and then he got shot Friday night.”
After being injured, Nicholson was taken by car to Greensboro hospital and then later transported to DCH in Tuscaloosa. He believes he lost his leg in the hours it took to get him into surgery.
“I think they could have saved my leg if something was done right away,” he said. “I lost my leg in the trip to Tuscaloosa.”
Still Nicholson held out hope that he would be able to keep his leg and his athletic aspirations.
“Because I was an athlete, and I had folks looking at me and all that, I told my momma, let’s try and save it,” Nicholson said.
But doctors had already told his mother, Cheri Briggins, that Tony would likely lose the leg right below the knee. After a couple of surgeries and no better diagnosis, his mom shared what the doctors had to do.
Nicholson stayed in the hospital from the end of June through Sept. 1, enduring approximately 15 surgeries.
It was a difficult time — a young man who just a few weeks earlier had been in great physical shape suddenly couldn’t bathe or dress himself without help.
“You don’t appreciate that stuff until you get like I was,” Nicholson said. “That’s just a big ego drop.”
Despite being told by doctors that he would never walk on the leg again, Nicholson grimaced through the pain and was able to get around his hospital room before his amputation. When doctors took his toes in an early operation, he walked on the back of his heels.
But his leg ultimately couldn’t be saved — there was just too much dead tissue. Tony had the surgery to remove it and was fitted for prosthesis.
Not long after then, an extra chipper physical therapist came to see him.
“My physical therapist came in my room just hopping. I thought why is this dude hopping around, just skipping,” Nicholson recalled. “Then he told me he had a prosthetic, and that’s what made me think, ‘OK, I can still do what I want to do.’”
‘LET’S JUST GO WALKING’
Though Nicholson was discharged from the hospital in early September, it would be November before he got his prosthetic, giving swelling in his leg time to go down.
In the meantime, he got the chance to return to the DHS sidelines during the Oct. 12 game against Sumter Central.
Before the coin toss, Nicholson was wheeled to midfield in a golf cart to be honorary captain for his last Homecoming game. The appearance was as much of a surprise to his teammates as those watching from the stands.
While Nicholson had visited with the coaches before Homecoming, he hadn’t seen many of his teammates since June.
Nicholson watched the game from the bench, where player after player came up the entire first half to speak to him.
“There’s 50 kids coming to speak to him,” Causey said. “It was very emotional just to look up and see him.”
Another month passed before Nicholson got his prosthesis, which he was walking on within hours of receiving.
“When I first got my leg, it took me less than 24 hours to walk because I was so determined to walk,” he said.
He worked to improve his gait the same way he went about preparing for games and competition.
“My dad got me up one morning and said, “Let’s just go walking,’” Nicholson said. “My dad don’t like to walk, but he was recording me.”
Tony studied the film, sizing up his limp and ways to overcome it. He even loaded the videos to YouTube to document his progress.
“My doctor told me I’m one of the first people to run in three weeks (of receiving a prosthetic),” he said. “It wasn’t fast but I was there.”
His progress was so remarkable that doctors were considering clearing him to return to football.
The turnabout was made possible by a playoff run by his teammates. The further the Tigers could make it in the postseason, the more likely Nicholson would get to play some snaps again.
Unfortunately, Demopolis fell in the second round at Spanish Fort, after an early injury to senior quarterback Tucker Jones. Nicholson said had Demopolis won that game, he would have dressed out the following week.
“I was ready for the game, I was like we are going to win this,” he said. “And then we lost.”
Being denied the chance to play, if only for a few downs, stung.
“I didn’t cry though because I did all my crying when I was in the hospital,” Nicholson said. “Everything happens for a reason.”
‘I CAN FIGHT YOU STANDING ON ONE FOOT’
Though Nicholson never got back on the football field, his injury allowed him to return to something else he loved at DHS: the Tiger Arts Guild stage.
He had a minor role in “Hairspray” as a sophomore and enjoyed the experience of acting and singing.
Theater teacher Jody Tartt was impressed with his ability and asked him to audition again for another production his junior year. However, he was too busy with athletics to try out.
“After what happened to me this summer, she asked me if I wanted to audition, and I said I might as well,” he said.
This spring, the Tiger Arts Guild put on “The Wizard of Oz.” The role Nicholson chose to audition for was that of the Cowardly Lion, fitting considering how anxious he was about trying out.
“To be honest, I was nervous because going from being in the background to a lead part, that’s a big jump,” he said.
Tartt said she doesn’t know what all the fuss was about.
“When Tony came in and auditioned, he was just obviously the best choice,” she said.
Nicholson prepared for the role with the same dedication he had on the football field, with the same grit he used to learn to walk on his prosthetic.
“I had to get the work done. I treat it like any other sport,” he said. “The more you practice, the better you perform.”
Tartt said Nicholson researched in detail how other actors performed the role.
“He really researched and asked people questions. A lot of kids just don’t have the initiative to do that,” Tartt said.
Though the part of the Cowardly Lion had Nicholson jumping, running, falling down and skipping, most in attendance never knew he was wearing a prosthetic leg.
“This is amazing that he’s been able to overcome this and to be up there dancing,” Tartt said. “I don’t think anyone would dream he had a prosthetic.”
The irony of Nicholson playing a character that has to dig deep to find hidden courage wasn’t lost on the cast and crew.
“There’s even a line where he says, ‘I can fight you standing on one foot,’” Tartt said. “He started taking everything he was doing with an attitude of it being a challenge and doing it to the best of his ability. Tony would be the first to show up to practice and the last to leave. That’s just the attitude he had about everything.”
‘MY PROSTHETIC IS AN EXTENSION OF MY BODY’
Not playing football this year also allowed Nicholson to focus on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which he does under Ross Martial Arts instructors Jay and Ronda Russell.
He started with Ross before his injury after teammates Demetrius Kemp and Corey James introduced him to it.
He started training and proved to be a fast student. He joked his friends didn’t want to grapple after he had a few lessons.
“They stopped playing with me because I knew the same things they knew,” he said.
He had only trained at Ross before losing his leg, but since coming back, he has competed at several meets, locally and across the Southeast.
When Jay Russell called North American Grappling Association organizers to ask about Nicholson competing in their events he was told amputees often compete at NAGA.
Nicholson is classified as a super heavyweight, which includes anyone 225 pounds and up. He wrestles without his prosthetic, which always draws attention when he removes it.
“He sat down to take off his prosthetic and people started gathering,” Jay Russell said. “Then he won his first match, it was like ‘Rudy’ or something. The whole place just erupted in applause. It was really motivating and inspiring.”
Nicholson has found success, winning first place at the Demopolis meet and placing second in competitions outside Alabama.
“We did it with good technique, not just because he was bigger than most of the guys,” Jay Russell said.
Nicholson competes in Gi and No Gi Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and some Taekwondo. He hopes to represent Ross at meets in Atlanta and Memphis in June.
He said having a prosthetic isn’t too far of a stretch when thinking of mixed martial arts.
“You can think of it as a sword, which you treat as an extension of your body,” Nicholson said. “My prosthetic is an extension of my body.”
‘HE GOT IT’
An extension of his body on the stage or mat, Nicholson still sometimes forgets he doesn’t have his leg.
“I get up in the morning to use the bathroom like any other guy, but sometimes I forget my leg and then fall of the bed and catch myself,” he said. “It’s just little things like that.”
Nicholson also keeps a sense of humor about his new life. He recalls one story where he was running late for class but had left his prosthetic there earlier in the day.
“I had taken it off in class, but I wasn’t in there,” he said. “The teacher said, ‘Why are so late?’ I told her, “I’m not late, part of me is here.’”
It’s that positive attitude that has helped Nicholson adjust so well, his supporters say.
“He had grown up a bunch even before the accident, but he has really matured since,” Causey said. “I think that’s a credit to his mother and daddy and support around him.”
Nicholson said his mother Cheri is the strongest woman he knows.
“Without her, I don’t know where I would be. She’s a very strong woman dealing with four kids,” Nicholson said. “If it wasn’t for my mom and dad, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.”
He also has three younger sisters, Nichole, Shay and Kay, who don’t treat big brother Tony any differently today than they didn’t before he lost his leg.
Nicholson also credits guidance counselor Debbie Nichols for helping him keep up with his studies. She brought him homework at the hospital and to his house.
“When he was going through all his turmoil and surgeries, we were in the middle of football season. I didn’t get up there near as much as I should have, but Debbie Nichols was up there religiously,” Causey said. “She loves and babies him enough, but she’ll motivate him too when he needs it.”
Nicholson plans to go to Wallace State Community College in Selma after graduation to study drafting and design. He became interested in the field after working in Charles Jones’ woodshop.
Causey said if Nicholson keeps the attitude he has today he’s going to go far.
“Tony is going to be successful no matter what he does because he has that kind of personality. He’s a happy guy but he understands you have to work to get whatever you want. He finally got that right before his accident.”
Causey said though it would be easy to do, Nicholson hasn’t used his situation as a crutch and doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him. Instead, he wants to get after it.
“Most of the kids usually get that after graduation. He was fortunate to understand it before then,” Causey said. “The same thing that he finally got that would have made him have a heck of a senior year on the football field is the same reason he is in drama, competing in NAGA, doing what he is doing. He got it.”